The Human History of Big Island, Hawaii

Historians place the arrival of the first humans in the Hawaiian Islands on the southern side of the Big Island of Hawaii. From the Island’s South Point mooring places and petroglyphs on the volcanic lava fields, to churches and gathering places dotted throughout the historical ahupuaa (a region of land from the uplands to the sea), the Big Island is a showcase for the history of humankind in the Hawaiian islands.

South Point on the Big Island is the most southern point in the United States. The cliffs were ancient mooring places for canoes belonging to the first settlers on the Big Island. Fishermen still use this place to cast their lines, and adventurous locals dive into the turbulent but clear waters below (not recommended for tourists who are not aware of ocean currents, as the undertow is usually quite strong and has swept many lives away in the turquoise clear waters). Several miles up the beach (toward the Hilo side of the Island) is the Green Sand Beach colored by olivine that formed as part of the volcanic eruptions long ago. It is worth hiking to (or paying for a local to drive you in their 4x4). Green Sand Beach is one of only four green beaches in the world.
Chain of Craters Rd, Pāhoa, HI 96778, USA
There are several hidden treasures among the volcanoes on the Big Island of Hawaii. The one that I found most fascinating was a short (0.7 mile) hike from the Chain of Craters road to the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs. I was most fascinated that this land has been lava coated—and recoated—for ages and yet these petroglyphs still managed to escape centuries of fresh molten lava. I also thought this image, etched in the rock, was the likeness of a couple and imagined some ancient Hawaiian man carefully carving out the images and comically telling his wife: “I lava you a lot.”
State Highway 160
Catch a glimpse of what Hawaii looked like before European contact. An unmissable destination for culture buffs, this sacred area stretches along the lava flats of the Big Island’s western coast. Behind a massive wall stands an ancient pu’uhonua (place of refuge)—where defeated enemies and those who violated the kapu (laws) could seek pardon. The park also shelters the Royal Grounds, a residential and ceremonial epicenter, and the 1871 Trail that takes in the shoreline. Tip: This is a religious site, so be respectful and don’t smoke, picnic, play sports, take wedding photos, or carry beach equipment (including towels) here. Just north of the boat launch outside of the park you can find Two Step, a phenomenal scuba and snorkeling spot.
56-2864 Akoni Pule Hwy, Hawi, HI 96719, USA
My wife and I like the amenities of resort vacations as much as the next couple. But in June 2012, we spent a month living like locals. Our favorite part of that experience was at a magical place near Hawi named Puakea Ranch. The place is dripping with history: All four of the structures on the property date back to the 1940s or earlier, vestiges of the place’s former life as a pig ranch and a sugar plantation as part of the communal Kohala Field system. Puakea also offers luxury: When the owners purchased the place in 2006, they spent three years gutting the structures and retrofitting them with modern kitchens and luxurious (stand-alone) bathhouses. Most important, Puakea is a haven for little ones learning about the world. Animals on the ranch outnumber humans by a count of nine or 10 to one. Storms move through regularly, leaving nothing but rainbows in their path. On clear nights, thanks to zero light pollution, the night sky reveals a bazillion stars. Our girls—ages 3.5 and 1 at the time—loved interacting with this wonder. Every morning, my toddler and I fetched eggs from the chicken coop across the lawn and plucked papayas from trees out back. During afternoons, the four of us tromped up the hill to watch the horses graze. In the evenings, my wife sauntered into the garden to snip herbs for pasta and other dishes. On aimless walks around the property, I’d take the baby to watch the switchgrass wave in the whipping wind and play spot-the-wayward-cows-and-goats.
76-6224 Alii Dr
The site of the historic church Hale Halawaio Holualoa has likely been used for ages. Old konane (a game) boards have been excavated from the area along with canoe landings and a grave site. The current building, erected in 1855, was made from stone and coral lime. The building still holds Sunday services, though this congregations now calls themselves Living Stones Church.
62-3601 Kawaihae Rd, Waimea, HI 96743, USA
Only kahuna (priests) and alii nui (chiefs) were eligible to visit the Heiau (temples) at Puukohola. The site was dedicated in 1791 before the kapu (taboo) system that included human sacrifice was dissolved in 1819. Now a National Historic Site, visitors can find stone monuments at the site where Hawaii’s sometimes violent history played out. The temples were destroyed in 1819 with the end of the organized worship of the Hawaiian gods and only platforms remain. The surrounding area was used for farming and settlements.
Influenced by missionaries who began arriving in the early 1800s, the Hawaiian Islands now maintain several historic mission churches and even continue to hold Sunday services in some. Hokuloa Church was built in 1852 by Reverend Lorenzo Lyons, who engaged the entire town to help with the construction. The area has ancient petroglyphs etched in volcanic rock, and the sugar cane train hauled sugar via a nearby rail line. Now home to Hokula United Church of Christ, the property remains a picturesque part of the Big Island’s history.
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